Human Visits Raucous Beach Party

Elephant Seals take up beaches at Año Nuevo and Piedras Blancas between November and March, and visitors can witness the seals' winter drama. Cast of characters include Alpha males, opportunistic seagulls, and 'super-weaners.'

by Madeleine Turner

Feb. 5, 2016—Elephant seals are big and loud, and they sound like human suffering. Females’ calls are like somebody retching. Their voices crackle like air is being forced up their throats. Others’ voices are smoother; they sound like a person wailing. Pups have high-pitched screams. These aren’t the only noises that characterize their diversity of sounds. A howling dog and a whooping chimpanzee must be hiding somewhere in that crowd.

Then there’s alpha males. Their voices sound like deep, bubbling pots of mud. Or amplified farts. If fat was actually a sound, it would be the bellow of a male elephant seal. Still, they’re probably the most pleasant thing to listen to out there.

It’s a stormy day in January. Twenty people walk towards Año Nuevo beach, and the cacophony hits them before the sight or stench. Among the group is an older Italian couple, an Australian family, some San Franciscans and some locals. They’re here on a guided tour. All of them are in for a noisy treat—the beach abounds with elephant seals.

This raucous beach party is impressive to our ears, as well as our eyes. But take note: elephant seals have stranger habits. Seals can hold their breath for up to two hours during dives. They complete two separate migrations each year—females reside in the Pacific and males swim to Alaska. An elephant seal logs between 15,000 and 20,000 miles of travel each year.

Every November, elephant seals lumber onto land. It’s breeding season between then and March. The same seals return to the same beach every year, creating distinct colonies. Most seals claim remote islands off Santa Barbara and Baja. But a few colonies occupy mainland beaches, including beaches at Año Nuevo State Park and Piedras Blancas.

First males shove their way to shore. They fight to establish alpha status. Few are successful. The young males have no chance of becoming alpha males, but they need to spend time out of the buoyant salt water anyways. Experiencing gravity on land helps build strength.

Females come in early January. Less than a week after their arrival, they give birth to pups conceived the year before. Pups enter the world as seventy pound morsels. By March, each pup will weigh three hundred pounds.

So by mid-January, males, females and pups are all on the beach. They stay on the same shore night and day, unfazed by wind, rain or cold. It’s a big and ugly family reunion.

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The people visiting Año Nuevo are clad in rain jackets and waterproof boots. Gear doesn’t matter, they’re all soaked. Wind whips around them, stealing hats and brochures. Umbrellas, being uncontrollable and dangerous, are banned.

I’m out there too, another wet and pitiful tourist. When we arrive at the beach, I first notice the seals’ diversity in size and shape. Alpha males weigh around 6,600 pounds, and females weigh a measly ton or less. The beach is a Where’s Waldo? scene for seals. Everyone is sprawled out, mixed up together. Alphas don’t give a damn—they lie on pups and end up squishing a few.

Males and females look like they could be separate species. Females are handsome, with their small faces and whiskers. Males have dangling fatty noses, called proboscis. Their nostrils are wide and flabby, like a grapefruit passed through them.

There’s no privacy on the beach. Everything happens simultaneously and in plain sight. Fifty seagulls swirl around and land on the beach’s far side. The docent thinks a female is giving birth. As soon as a pup is born, seabirds pluck the afterbirth. Which is nice because it keeps the beach clean.

But nobody can see what the seagulls are getting at. The visitors’ attention turns to a female seal right below them. She’s lying next to three pups, but it’s impossible for all of them to be hers. The docent gives a viable explanation: The pups are super-weaners. These creeps refuse to stop nursing, even after their mothers quit and go back to sea. They find another nursing female to co-opt, stealing milk from another pup.

Two hundred miles south, at Piedras Blancas, elephant seals and people are doing the same stuff. Seals rear pups, fight, screech and moan. People gawk and take photos. Instead of tromping through the dunes, people stand on a boardwalk. There’s no guided tours here, so people mill about. The planks hover over the beach; seals are so close.

Cameras snap as a younger male is ambitiously approaching an alpha male’s harem. Alpha doesn’t like that. He arches his body—the display makes him tall. He bellows and jerks his head up and down. Quickly the young male bows out.

The alpha isn’t satisfied. He chases the young male down the beach. To get around, seals combine legless galloping with laborious scooching. Their rumps are excellent illustrations of wave theory— blubber ripples to and fro as they go. The alpha propels the young male far away; peace resumes.

Now the alpha returns to his harem, a group of about twenty females. He clutches a female with his flippers, pinning her down to mate. Throughout the season he mates with all of them. To hold control of his harem, he constantly fights off the other males. He’s determined not to let some young punk taint his family’s gene pool.

More physical fights happen in November and December, before females arrive and before this boardwalk was filled with people. Males fight to establish their dominance. Only winners get to secure harems and mate.

During a fight, males look ridiculous. As they close in on their rival, their heads snap back and their mouths gape. Their proboscises, covered in blood and sand, wobble and sometimes fall into their own mouths. Their pupils bulge. The whites of their eyes are visible, making them look both enraged and terrified. They edge around each other and strike with their toothy upper jaw, wringing themselves around their opponent’s neck.

Nobody saw a fight at Año Nuevo, and I don’t know about Piedras Blancas. Either way, I hope people can return to see a fight some day. Even the international tourists, the ones from Australia and Germany and China, should return. An alpha fight, along with all the seals’ winter drama, is worth seeing.

Read about the rescue of a stranded elephant seal pup too young to live on her own.

Elephant seal tours at Año Nuevo run through March 31. Click for more information and reservations.